The terrorism that struck New York and London, the chaos reigning in Iraq and the climate of hostility to the United States in the Muslim world, we are told, are traceable to a sick ideology and an aggressive culture founded on violence and religious hatred.
Religion and culture have turned into the big coat beneath which hide many agendas. It has been a common practice to attempt to shift the centre of discourse from the world of politics with its complex games and interests to the abstract realm of culture and religion, as though these were rigid values floating outside space and time, or some faraway islands isolated from the socio-political contexts within which they are made to operate.
This Euro-American strategy of reform largely rests on the bid to reconstruct the Islamic cultural map through a dual game that combines the stick of military interventions with the carrot of promises of reform and modernisation, just as the armies of Napoleon and Victoria had used the sweet illusion of enlightenment and progress as veils for the abyss of conquest, mortar and gunpowder. Though the names and some of the terms have changed, the rules of the game are still the same.
Far from being altruistic, or driven by the love of humanity, American, and to a large extent European, strategies of reform in the region are informed by an instrumental rationality that invests the notion of reform and its neo-liberal champions for the purpose of attaining a set of pre-determined objectives, designed to subdue the region entirely to the great powers competing over its wealth and resources.
The promotion of an apolitical brand of Islam is an essential part of this strategy of transferring the battle to the enemy’s front. This is why the recent rise to prominence of a brand of apolitical Islam preached by pseudo-mystics and neo-liberals should come as no surprise to us.
To say that the region was a corpse brought back to life by the canons of colonialism is nonsense.
After all, as early as 2003 the Rand report had recommended that the “United States consider carefully which elements, trends and forces within Islam they intend to strengthen … and what the broader consequences of advancing their respective agendas are likely to be”, advising a policy of supporting “the modernists” on the one hand and setting “the traditionalists against the fundamentalists” on the other.
That modernist and traditionalist should have turned into bedfellows is odd. The one is frozen in the iron cage of the present, the other in the distant utopian past. In the eyes of Euro-American strategists, however, the two share the essential virtue of being apolitical, willing to turn a blind eye to reality along with the mechanisms of dominance, injustice and exploitation that dictate its shape and structure. The golden rule, of course, is “speak of everything except politics”.
Rather than engaging with this world with a view to change and improve it, the champions of popular folk Islam urge flight to the next, to the exotic realm of esoteric agnoticism and the dwelling place of dreams and fantasies. In their strange interpretations Islam appears as a clawless, toothless creed tailored for recluses and dervishes, stripped of the fundamental social and political dimensions that have always formed part of its world view and historical experience.
The promotion of an apolitical brand of Islam is an essential part of this strategy of transferring the battle to the enemy’s front.
As for the neo-liberals, these have mastered the art of self-flagellation, never venturing outside the square drawn out for them in London, Paris and New York, speaking only to parrot the stale clichés manufactured in their political and academic laboratories. What Muslim nations need, they insist, is not a far-reaching project of socio-political reform and a semblance of sovereignty and self-determination, but “a change of hearts and minds”, in their different ways echoing the oft-repeated words of George Bush and his allies across the Atlantic.
This neo-liberal finger is always pointed to the Arab and Muslim, while the great players who hold in their hands the reins of the world and its nations are declared innocent of all wrongdoing. What we need to know is that just as the great powers have political and military clients in the region, they have their cultural clients too.
To say that the neo-liberals are the only glimmers of light in a sea of darkness is absurd. Anyone sufficiently acquainted with the history of the region and its intellectual traditions will find the claim that reform is a recent invention of the neo-liberals laughable.
Anyone sufficiently acquainted with the history of the region and its intellectual traditions will find the claim that reform is a recent invention of the neo-liberals laughable.
As Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century historian, tells us in his Prolegomena, reform, or Islah, is a longstanding and continuing dimension of Muslim historical experience. Islamic history is a succession of cycles of reform, of attempts to bring society into conformity with the guiding Islamic ideals of justice and equality.
The recent history of the region has been haunted with the notions of reform and renaissance. The question of how to reconstruct the Muslim condition and revitalise Islam’s internal dynamism to confront the project of Western expansionism in the region forms the axis of the great 19th-century Islamic reform movement led by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Ridha and their disciples across Muslim lands.
Their school of reform attracted scores of scholars, journalists and political activists and has left us some important journals and newspapers, such as al-Manar, al-Risalah, al-Mufid, and al-Mu’ayyad.
Religion and culture have turned into the big coat beneath which hide many agendas.
The reform invoked today bears no resemblance to that envisioned by al-Afghani, or the other great pioneers of modern Islamic reformism. Where one is intended to dismantle the Islamic map and reassemble it in light of foreign interests, the other aims to reconstruct the Muslim condition in accordance with its internal needs and for the purpose of meeting the challenges of the outside. Where one glosses over geopolitics and the great games of mastery in the region, the other places these at the core of its diagnosis of the causes of decline.
To say that the region was a corpse brought back to life by the canons of colonialism is nonsense. In fact, the study of the successive waves of Western interventions in the region reveals a distinct pattern of obstruction of internal reform from the 19th-century Tanzimat movement in Istanbul, to the projects of Muhammad Ali the Great in Egypt, and Khair al-Din al-Tunisi in Tunisia.
There is no doubt that the Muslim region is in need of a thoroughgoing process of reform. But this must not lead us to false conclusions.
Any effort of reform worthy of the name must meet two fundamental conditions. It must be rooted in the concerns, needs and priorities of the internal Muslim body, and aware of its geopolitical context and the mechanisms of hegemony at work therein. That is crucial in a region which, since the 18th century, has been the cornerstone of Western projects of expansionism, and the scene of much blood, lies and illusions, from enlightenment and progress, to modernisation and reform.
Soumaya Ghannoushi is a freelance writer and researcher at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.